Tag Archives: foreign language

Learning to Love the Subjunctive

Learning another language is less about acquisition than a long process of letting go. You think adjectives should go before the nouns they modify? Let it go. That grammatical rule seems illogical? You think irregular verbs should be outlawed? Let it go. Why are things that way? They just are. Let it go. Besides, the more Spanish I learned, the more logical it seemed and I pitied folks who were trying to learn English. English makes no sense whatsoever.

Most people fare pretty well through Spanish 1 and 2 – adjectives, present tense, past tense, commands, imperfect (which sounds baffling, but is actually one of the easiest tenses)…Then comes…THE SUBJUNCTIVE.

The subjunctive exists in English, but we could say it has atrophied from lack of use. What better example than Justin Bieber’s new song “If I was your boyfriend”? The grammatically correct phrase would be “If I were your boyfriend,” because the status of boyfriend is currently NOT locked down…it’s not out of question, but that it is currently contrary to fact that Bieber is this lady’s boyfriend…right now, the Biebs is in more of a hopeful, wishful state. That’s the subjunctive – a perfect blend of hopefulness, uncertainty and ambiguity.

As it turns out, English-speakers (and Americans especially) are not too big on ambiguity. For the past ten years, it has bothered me that Mexicans don’t have different words for cantaloupe, honeydew and crane melons. They’re all just…melón. Ditto with lemon vs. lime. This doesn’t bother Mexicans in the slightest however. So if my head explodes over that, you can imagine how well I took to the subjunctive. Americans also have some rude and demanding tendencies. Using the subjunctive will instantly make you more solicitous and humble. There is more than a linguistic gulf between the phrases: “I think she’s totally preggers” and “¿Podria ser que este embarazada?”

Americans are culturally averse to the subjunctive. Which is why I listened with such interest to this lecture “Can Diverse Societies Cohere?” Sociologist Richard Sennett argued that in order for very different people to get along and cooperate, three things need to happen. 1) Our conversations need to be less of a dialectical tug of war and more about listening to get at what people are REALLY saying behind the words they’re using. Basically the opposite of “Crossfire.” 2) We need more subjunctive in our lives. 3) We need less sympathy and more empathy. He has an interesting definition of empathy that is more akin to a caring curiosity for others, not pretending you get everything about them and where they’re coming from, but caring enough to wonder.

Why the prescription for more subjunctive? Because it’s gray and unclear, it leaves space. Let’s say you’re next to a stranger on the bus. If you say, “Look at that girl’s outfit. Teenagers these days. I think they need not only a little more clothing, but a little more God,” the conversation probably isn’t going to progress very far. You already stated your piece. If you instead opened with, “How about that outfit? Wonder what it could be that inspired that…” There’s space to converse. (Sorry for the poor example. That’s how little we use the subjunctive in English!)

For us Americans, the subjunctive is confusing and ambiguous. That’s exactly why we might possibly need a little more of it in our lives. ¿Podria ser?

Thoughts? C’mon friends – based on your recent rants on the Oxford comma, I’m pretty sure  that you all have strongly held opinions about my favorite (and almost everyone else’s least favorite) part of Spanish.

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Filed under Mexico, Weirdness

Accents

As a native Californian, I always considered myself not to have an accent. Southerners have accents. Bostonians have accents. British people have accents. Don’t even get me started on Indian people.
But me? No way.
After graduating from high school, I made the audacious move across state lines to Portland, Oregon. In terms of the culture shock scale, this hardly registered. Here’s a compare/contrast:

Sonoma/ Portland
Lots of liberal people /  Lots of liberal people
Beautiful wine country  / Beautiful wine country
Stunning coastline / Stunning coastline
Good food / Good food
Sunny / Cloudy
Good Mexican food / Only one good taqueria in the entire metro area

Portland was novel, but not exactly exotic. I considered myself in the same realm – not particularly exotic.
My first day on campus, I was talking to a couple of girls from two other states – the usual chitchat: Where are you from? What’s your dorm? What classes do you have? Pretty banal stuff.
While I was talking, the two of them were smiling and exchanging mildly bemused glances.
When I paused, one of them jumped in, “ Excuse me, where are you from?”
“California.”
“Oooooooh! I thought you had an accent.”
Honestly, this was complete news to me. I found a fellow Californian and she confirmed – we did indeed have accents.
Suddenly all my verbal quirks were laid bare. Apparently, people in other states don’t generally say, “ I was like…what?!!” or recount dialogues from earlier in the day by saying, “So he was like, ‘What are you doing later?’ and I’m all, ‘Nothing. Why?’”
Apparently, they don’t say everything as if they were asking a question. And they don’t talk so quickly.
My inscrutable accent was confirmed by the ultimate arbiter: someone from another country in the process of learning English. My friend’s Brazilian “sister” came to visit and she rated all of us on intelligibility. #1 by a long shot was our friend from Ohio, proving that state’s superiority in…neutrality. Ohio is prime recruiting ground for bland national newscasters. Wyoming, New Mexico and Oregon were all passable. Dead last: me.
“Sometimes, I do not understand you,” she said in her adorable Portuguese-tinged accent.
After four years living with friends from all different states, I concluded the California accent was not only a habit I was unlikely to kick, but something that I could wear with pride. After all, California is, like, awesome?!
At the same time, I was trying to kick another accent – my American accent.

My fave song about being bilingual – con mis dos lenguas te voy a enamorar!!! Watch out…

Learning another language is always a comedy of errors, and my foibles in Cuba and Mexico were no exception to the rule. Some classmates along the line seemed to pick up the language effortlessly, others had been studying for years and were still painful to hear. I thought I was doing pretty well until I heard any recording of my voice.
After a year in Mexico, my friend, Diana, said to me, “Sierra, I am begging you to do me this favor. PLEASE change the message on your answering machine. It’s horrible!”
I had recorded it my first week living in Mexico, giving it a couple of tries, then just simply giving up. As she pointed out, she was the one who had to endure my mangled Spanish every time she called me. We recorded a new one – the crowning achievement of my progression in the Spanish language.
There are other indications of my progression – as well as the limits of my fluidity.
At a recent quinceanera, the priest battled through the entire mass in his leaden book Spanish, with that American twang. Afterwards, I asked my boyfriend if I sounded like that sometimes. He told me I didn’t sound that bad – then again, he has a vested interest in not pissing me off.
Perhaps the best compliment I’ve gotten was from a Spaniard who called a wrong number. A guy called our house in Portland speaking Spanish so my roommate passed it over to me. Confusion ensued. After 10 minutes of back and forth, we were able to establish that this guy did indeed have the number correct, but the former girlfriend he was trying to reach no longer lived there and I didn’t have any idea where she might be.
“You speak Spanish very well,” he lisped. “I cannot tell where you are from – Eres Latina?”
By this he meant someone with Spanish-speaking parents who grew up in the US.
You know what? I’ll take it.

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Filed under Getting personal, I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Mexico